Over the past few years, fans of Netflix's Peaky Blinders have become quite invested in the Shelby family and their tumultuous and violent rise to power and prominence against the backdrop of post World War I England. Never before did we think we would root for the characters who would just as likely be the villains in another story. As it turns out, our favorite Birmingham gang of anti-heroes, the Peaky Blinders, have a true story behind all the premium streaming service drama.
The Peaky Blinders were a real street gang operating out of Birmingham, England at the end of the 19th century and after the First World War. They were involved in all the things you see the fictional gang get up to: robbery, violence, influencing politics, and running gambling rings. They even sported the now-iconic style seen on the show, complete with silk scarves, tailored jackets, and peaked flat caps with razor blades sewn into the peaks. The Peaky Blinders even battled a rival gang known as the Birmingham Boys led by Billy Kimber just like they did in season 1 of the show.
However, the similarities, of which there are many, stop there. The gang may have existed, some of their many rivals existed, but the Shelby family that the show centers around is not real. The show first introduces us to the Shelby family after the eldest three brothers, Arthur, Thomas, and John (Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, and Joe Cole) return from fighting in World War I in 1918. In the series, this seems to be the start of the Peaky Blinders making big moves to control their part of the city, but the real street gang had its heyday many years earlier. They were most prominent in the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s, but unlike in the series, they lost much of their control of the city to the Birmingham Boys during turf wars in 1910.
While the Shelby family was created for the series, several of the characters that appear throughout the seasons are real, especially in seasons 4 and 5. As we mentioned, Billy Kimber was a real rival gang leader. Winston Churchill, who at the time was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, appears throughout the series. Jessie Eden, a trade unionist and protestor, is real as well. She first appears on the show in season 4 and was a champion for women’s rights and social justice as well as Tommy Shelby’s love interest. A new character to season 5, Oswald Mosley, was a real-life fascist politician who faces off against Tommy Shelby on the show as a rival member of parliament in the neighboring district.
Though the Peaky Blinders had all but disappeared by the 1920s, the underworld of gangs and gangsters was alive and well in Birmingham during that time and left behind a notorious legacy.